Now that Rose is out for the remainder of the playoffs, the Bulls are mere mortals in a pool of mostly mortal teams. They were able to get by through the season without the reigning MVP from last year by playing outstanding defense, allowing everyone to get involved in the offense, and playing each game like it was game seven of the Finals. In the playoffs, though, you need at least one guy that you can lean on late in the fourth quarter when the game is close and the season is on the line. Even if he hadn’t gotten hurt, I was still worried that by the time the Bulls made it to see Miami in the Conference Finals that LeBron would switch over and check Rose in those situations, which he did last year with much success. In Rose’s defense, it’s hard to do anything when the most athletic guy in the league is guarding you and has not only six inches on you, but also an entire nation worth of haters serving as motivation. Still, I had that delusional confidence that comes along with being a fan, and I was confident that the Bulls would be able to get by Boston and Miami. I was a little skeptical about their chances of beating Oklahoma City though. That team is tough. I just finished watching them erase a thirteen point fourth quarter deficit to sweep the defending NBA Championship Mavericks and make it look easy.
Now with Rose out, I can look at things more realistically. First off, let me quickly skim through the playoff match-ups for you: OKC already knocked off Dallas; they’re waiting to play the winner of the Lakers/Nuggets match-up, which, regardless of Denver’s mauling the other night, will be wrapped up in the next two or three games by LA. Remember a couple years ago when OKC took the Lakers (who ended up winning the title that year in a rematch over Boston) to six games? You could tell they were going to be a team to be reckoned with for quite a while if they could keep that nucleus of Durant and Westbrook together, and they ended up in the Conference Finals the next year (last year) against Dallas. Each year they keep getting better and better, and now they just swept the reigning NBA champions. How well does this bode for Kobe and company, who are looking tough themselves with the emergence of Andrew Bynum? Let’s just put it like this: OKC in five. On the other side of that bracket, San Antonio will sweep Utah (haven’t they done that already?) and will play the winner of the Memphis/LA Clippers series. That series is the only close one of the first round, but I think CP3 and company are talented enough to get past the Grizzlies. Might go to a game seven, though. Memphis gained plenty of confidence and experience last year, but Chris Paul is a genius and he’s good enough to get them into the second round. The Clippers are young and inexperienced as a team, so I don’t like their chances of making it past an aging yet battle tested Spurs team. Either way, whoever wins that series will get torched by the Thunder in the Conference Finals.
In the East, now that Rose is out, this is Miami’s conference to lose. The 76ers were looking like contenders early in the season before taking a second half dive that left them crawling into the playoffs, but with the confidence they’re gaining with these wins against the #1 seed, it might carry them into the second round (though I still hold out hope, especially if Noah is able to play, that the Bulls can at least get past the #8 seed). Boston should be able to beat either of them in the second round, though (which explains who I like in the Boston/Atlanta series). Indiana is a win away from making it into the second round and being swept by Miami. Miami versus Boston will be fun to watch, but ultimately LeBron will prove to be too much for Pierce (or anyone else crazy enough to guard him) and Miami will have another shot at winning (“not one, not two, not three, not four…”) their first title with the Big Three.
Remember when Karl Malone and John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek kept making deep runs and a couple of appearances in the Finals in the 90s, only to keep getting beaten by the GOAT (greatest of all time)? Well, unless LeBron sheds the “fourth quarter choke artist” label and claims his own stake as the GOAT, he might find himself in the same shoes as The Mailman. (Not literally, that’d be gross. I’m sure those shoes are all sweaty and stinky by now. Besides, they probably don’t wear the same size anyway.) The Thunder have the type of team that can win multiple championships, just like Miami does, except maybe a little better. They have two bonafied superstars, just like Miami, except that they’re younger and have less wear and tear on their bodies. Plus, they have a guy coming off the bench (James Harden) who can put up thirty points just as easily as anyone else on the court. What that means is they have options, multiple options, that can score from anywhere on the floor, at any time. James and Wade are both streaky shooters who rely more often on their quickness to get to the rim. When they absolutely need a bucket, it’s easier for defenses to clog the lane and make them pull up from long distance. When either of them is on fire and hitting those outside shots, they become impossible to defend. LeBron has better shooting percentages than Wade (an unprecedented 53% from the field, 36% from beyond the arc, compared to Wade’s 49.7% from the field and a paltry 26.8% from beyond the arc), but because it’s Wade’s team and because he’s got that whole “choke” label, LeBron will defer to Wade in clutch situations. Like on this play.
Durant and Harden are both great shooters (Durant: 49.6% from field, 38.7% beyond; Harden: 49%/39%) and even Westbrook has a better 3pt percentage than Wade (45.7% from field, 31% from 3pt), and all three have been on OKC from the get-go, so there’s no stigmatism about it being “their team,” even though it’s undeniably Durant’s team. Come late in the game, they’re going to try to get the ball in Durant’s hands, and rightfully so. (Especially when he regularly pulls of shots like these:
Still, like I said, it makes the game easier when you have multiple options capable of scoring from anywhere on the floor. OKC’s game plan should be simple: clog the lane with shot blocker extraordinaire, Serge Ibaka, and tough guy, Kendrick Perkins; limit turnovers (not a specialty of Westbrook’s, admittedly) to avoid giving up fast break points, and force Miami to beat you from outside.
Granted, Miami has great defense; and it’s true that if the shots aren’t falling for OKC they don’t have an inside threat that can be relied upon. Thing is, neither does Miami. Both these teams will have to rely on fast breaks and making open jumpers, but if the combo of Durant, Westbrook, and Harden are able to stay healthy throughout the playoffs and Finals, then Miami will have their work cut out for them. And if this Thunder team is able to find a way to keep this nucleus together for the next decade? Well, then James and Wade will find themselves in the same predicament that Stockton and Malone did about fifteen years ago, wondering why they weren’t able to win “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven…” but not even one title.